Capitol Rioters in Jail’s ‘Patriot Wing’ Have Their Own Rituals and a Growing Fan Base

Experts worry that a lack of de-radicalization efforts in jail could mean inmates falling further into the narrative that led to the January 6 violence in the first place.
October 21, 2021, 4:01pm
Trump supporters near the U.S Capitol, on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Trump supporters near the U.S Capitol, on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

At 9 p.m. every night, inmates in the so-called Patriot Wing of the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility reportedly stand at attention and sing The Star-Spangled Banner. You can even listen, if you want, to an alleged recording of it on the website called The Patriot Freedom Project.

Inmates had also started their own handwritten newsletter and passed it from cell to cell, one detainee told NBC 4

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Part of a letter from one inmate, Guy Reffitt, and signed “The 1/6 -ers,” was published by ProPublica earlier this year and entered into evidence in the court. It reads like a manifesto on behalf of the Capitol rioters.

“We have been labeled the enemy, yet clearly we see tyranny as the enemy,” they wrote. “While our lawyers do our bidding and the judges do their duties, we remain resolute, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem all in unison, loud and proud most every day. All because we are us, we are you, we are all Americans and in here, we have no labels.”

The “Patriot Wing” houses the most hardcore perpetrators of the January 6 riot, roughly 40 men in all. 

On the outside, they’ve been recast as “political prisoners” by some sitting GOP politicians, while some fans even paint them as heroes—literally. One pro-Trump fine artist recently published images of a new painting titled “Solitary Confinement,” showing a shackled prisoner wearing a red MAGA hat, wasting away in his cell. That image has been shared widely on right-wing forums, with captions like “Never forget your brothers who fought on Jan. 6.” There’s also a coordinated “patriot mail” letter-writing campaign, plus fundraisers for the inmates, and lawmakers have led protests on their behalf. (The detainees’ complaints of poor treatment are not falling on deaf ears: The DOJ announced Thursday that it was reviewing conditions in the jail amid concerns from a federal judge.) 

But beyond their bizarre celebrity—they do stand accused of invading the world’s most famous symbol of democracy, after all—there are serious ethical and legal considerations on what to do with the “Patriot Wing” in the D.C. jail, officially called the Correctional Treatment Facility. 

Extremism experts say that many in that group are likely already radicalized, or at least vulnerable to being radicalized—and so the notion that they’re solidifying a group identity should be cause for concern, especially as they move further through the criminal justice system.

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“I do think the fact that the J6 defendants who are currently being held pre-trial... having them all together where they can seemingly communicate by newsletter, is likely to foster continued feelings of anti-government mentality among those individuals who are being prosecuted,” said Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. (Only about 40 of the 600-odd individuals arrested in connection with the Capitol riot are being detained pretrial.)

Some within the group of detainees are bonafide members of known extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. For example, New York Proud Boy Dominic Pezzola is accused of committing the first breach of the Capitol, which allowed rioters to stream into the building. When investigators searched his home, they discovered a thumb drive containing instructions for how to build bombs, construct homemade guns, and concoct poisons.

Others, like Lonnie Coffman, the Alabama man who was arrested near the Capitol with a truck full of weapons and Molotov cocktails, had dabbled in organized extremist activity, having been flagged by the FBI back in 2014 for armed militia activity. 

Some of those being held pretrial have no known nexus to organized extremist groups, but they’re accused of some of the most violent crimes documented at the Capitol, like beating police officers using an array of weapons, including a flagpole, a crutch, and a baton. 

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And while pretrial detention alone may be enough to deter some of the individuals in the Patriot unit from engaging in violence in the future, others may find themselves falling further into the narrative that brought them to the Capitol in the first place. 

“By naming themselves, having a newsletter, establishing this unification thing, they’re viewing themselves as patriots and see what they did as necessary to defend the country,” said Laura Dugan, Ralph D. Mershon Professor of Human Security and Professor of Sociology at Ohio State University. “Some may have to go even deeper into this layer of denial, buying even more into the idea that the election was not legitimate, and they had no other choice but to go and fight for it.”

These concerns about the individuals who are being held pretrial speak to a broader dilemma faced by policy makers and prison officials: how to ensure that people who harbor extremist beliefs don’t leave prison even more radicalized than they were to begin with. 

Counterterrorism officials and experts have repeatedly warned that, without adequate training for prison staff to help them recognize the signs of radicalization among inmates, and without dedicated rehabilitation programs for extremists, recidivism will pose a serious threat to future national security. In 2018, a federal court concluded that the U.S. had “yet to develop a unified strategy to address the problem of prison radicalization” and that there were “few deradicalization programs or initiatives in place that are target to rehabilitate extremists and help them re-enter society as lawful individuals.” That sentiment was reaffirmed in a federal terrorism case earlier this year, in which an expert testified that the U.S. was “miles away” from offering any kind of rehabilitation or deradicalization programs to extremists in custody that were comparable to what countries like Denmark or Germany had implemented. 

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Prison systems typically have three approaches when it comes to housing known extremists, which were laid out in a 2018 paper by George Washington University on “radicalization in custody.” The U.K. system and the Netherlands typically opt for “co-location,” which means that inmates who are designated as extremists are held in the same facility or area of facility. The thinking behind clustering extremists together is to prevent them from reaching and radicalizing other inmates who may be vulnerable to being radicalized. 

Others, including Spain, opt for “dispersal”—which means extremists are spread out across several prisons so that they can’t form extremist networks. The third option is isolation, where extremists are kept more or less in individual cells, and their interactions with others are severely restricted. But prolonged isolation, or “solitary confinement” as it's often referred to in the United States, has been widely criticized as being inhumane, and likened to torture by human rights advocates. 

The use of solitary in the case of the Jan. 6 detainees has been a major point of contention. Up until May, D.C. Jail, like many other criminal justice facilities around the country, had imposed harsh lockdown restrictions due to COVID-19 which meant inmates were isolated for up to 22 hours. Since restrictions were relaxed, some of the Jan. 6 detainees have at times reported that they’ve been placed in “the hole”—the nickname for solitary confinement—as a form of punishment. 

In addition to solitary confinement being problematic for its detrimental effects on mental health, deradicalization experts have also warned that prolonged periods of isolation can radicalize extremists further, and make them even more entrenched in their sense of grievance. 

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“This is inhumane and people think it's OK because I’m a Trump supporter,” wrote one Jan . 6 detainee in a letter that was published on The Gateway Pundit, a right-wing blog, about his experience in solitary confinement. “Because I like Trump they don’t see me as human. They enjoy watching me suffer. It makes them smile. How sick is that? The pure hate within the Justice Department is obvious in their actions.” 

Another key issue raised by the conduct of the detainees in the “Patriot Wing” is what actually constitutes radicalized or extremist behavior. On the face of things, singing the “Star Spangled Banner” in unison each evening and passing around a handwritten newsletter don’t exactly scream “extremist activity.” But those activities gain new significance when put into the context of Jan. 6, and how normalized right-wing conspiracy theories have become. 

FBI Director Chris Wray has labelled the events that transpired at the Capitol as “domestic terrorism.” Yet at the same time, the conspiracy theory that Trump was the real winner of the 2020 election, which galvanized people to storm the Capitol, is shared by much of the American public. Multiple surveys conducted since Jan. 6 have found that between half and two-thirds of Republicans believe the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump—or about a quarter of Americans overall. (There is zero evidence of any wrongdoing leading to President Biden’s victory.) And on Thursday, Trump put out a statement that claimed an “insurrection” took place on Nov. 3, 2020, the date of the presidential election, and that Jan. 6 was nothing more than “a protest.”

“By making these symbolic gestures, it makes it seem as though their “struggle,” everything they’re going through, is worth it. If what they did was for nothing, that would cause a serious break in their identity as “patriots”,” said Kurt Braddock, Assistant Professor of Communication at American University and faculty fellow at the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab. “These justifications are being mainstreamed and normalized by many elements of the right, and that’s the biggest danger right now.” 

Of the 646 people charged so far in connection with the Capitol riot, 109 have pleaded guilty

Some federal judges presiding over Jan. 6 cases have brushed off accusations that the defendants are being treated overly harshly under the law. However, claims of mistreatment inside the jail are being taken into account. Last week a federal judge ruled to hold the D.C. jail warden and the D.C. Department of Corrections director in contempt, saying they weren’t complying with paperwork requests and failed to follow through on a doctor's recommendation that Jan 6 defendant and Proud Boy Chris Worrell receive surgery for a broken hand. On Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division was reviewing conditions in the D.C. Jail. 

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter.